How babies and young children learn about the world around them has been a fertile and fascinating area of research into the human mind. In this remarkable piece of research, six American psychologists teamed up to discover a unique insight: “Young humans are remarkably helpless, relying entirely on the adult humans around them for survival. However, not all adults are as invested in the care of a particular child, and there is benefit in being able to determine from a very young age which relationships are close. Thomas et al. tested young children and infants to determine whether they were able to identify close, or “thick” relationships based on whether individuals participated in activities that involve sharing saliva, such as eating, kissing, or sharing utensils…The children expected relationships like these to be closer than other relationships, indicating that they can distinguish closeness very early in life….
Across human societies, people form “thick” relationships characterized by strong attachments, obligations, and mutual responsiveness. People in thick relationships share food utensils, kiss, or engage in other distinctive interactions that involve sharing saliva. We found that children, toddlers, and infants infer that dyads who share saliva (as opposed to other positive social interactions) have a distinct relationship. Children expect saliva sharing to happen in nuclear families. Toddlers and infants expect that people who share saliva will respond to one another in distress. Parents confirm that saliva sharing is a valid cue of relationship thickness in their children’s social environments. The ability to use distinctive interactions to infer categories of relationships thus emerges early in life, without explicit teaching; this enables young humans to rapidly identify close relationships, both within and beyond families.”

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